Contemporary Problems

Alive after the Fall Review

Surviving World War III

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We have examined the inter-relationships of four types of theory about war: just war, holy war, pacifism and realism. Let us now consider their relation to contemporary problems. A sketch of the modern period must serve to define the context. The modern period of military affairs is usually regarded as beginning in the eighteenth century, an era of limited wars between dynasts whose aims were confined to family aggrandizement and whose military commitments were proportionately moderate. It was a time in which the classic just war doctrine was despised. Every belligerent would call its cause just and war would be conducted on the basis of power politics. With the French Revolution the stakes of war increased enormously, for whole peoples came upon the stage of history for the first time and the age-old tendency towards holy war of the biblical type began to develop a modern variety, that of nationalism in arms. War remained an instrument of politics, a legitimate instrument of foreign policy, but the content and passion of war were changed. During the nineteenth century another far-reaching change in the nature of war was brought about by industrialization, which soon permitted the deployment of armies far larger than any that even Napoleon had been able to wield. The changed character of warfare began to be apparent in the American Civil War but it was only between 1914 and 1918 that the new issues became etched into popular and elite consciousness.

The individual sufferings and the destruction of empires effected by the First World War convinced many that war was no longer a legitimate instrument of foreign policy. Something had to be done to outlaw war, so it was felt widely but with insufficient universality. The League of Nations was created as a framework for the prohibition of all but defensive war. It failed to contain the resentments and ambitions of defeated Germany and victorious Japan; it failed to involve the mighty US in preserving the balance of power; it left out the self-preoccupied USSR.

The Second World War completed the tendency of industrialization to forge an intimate link between science and war. For the first time a group of the world's greatest scientists worked in deep secrecy on a military project and invented nuclear weapons. Military thinkers at once began to wrestle with the wholly new idea that peace might be located not in prohibitions and restraints or international organizations but in terror. Fission bombs were soon followed by fusion bombs of virtually unlimited destructive power and the means were devised to 'deliver' these, with ever greater accuracy, to any point on the earth's surface. Nuclear weapons seemed to promise or threaten that their possessors need no longer fight wars but could instead deter them.

By 1945 thinking was already well advanced for an organization to replace and improve upon the failed League of Nations. US President Roosevelt wanted the new United Nations to be based on the organized cooperation of the great powers, but Roosevelt died and was replaced by his Vice-President

Truman, a vociferous anti-Communist with little knowledge of foreign affairs. For reasons which remain the subject of intense historical disagreement, the great powers were soon at odds. There was 'Cold War' between the 'capitalist' US and 'communist' USSR and their respective allies and puppet-states. Furthermore, the US was firmly opposed to the British and French ambition to re-establish their empires (though not inclined to free Latin America from US domination). In theory, the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council were a powerful oligarchy of the great powers; in practice, their bitter hostility reduced the UN to a marginal role until the end of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its place among the Permanent Members was taken by Russia. It was increasingly argued that Japan and reunified Germany should be Permanent Members, and the claims of India to be a 'third world' Permanent Member were vociferously argued (and as vehemently opposed by India's enemies such as Pakistan).

During the Cold War, moral debate focused above all on nuclear deterrence. A standard just war argument against nuclear deterrence was as follows. A major nuclear war would certainly be both indiscriminate and disproportionate, therefore contrary to the just war principles. Deterrence requires both the capability to wage such a war and also the political will to do so. There must be political will at two levels. Those manning the deterrent must have the steady determination to fire nuclear weapons if ordered to do so and at the political level there must be the readiness to stand up to testing by crisis, as Kennedy did in the Cuba missiles crisis of 1962. Either the firm political intention to use nuclear weapons must already exist, and there is no question but that nuclear deterrence is the conditional intention to wage disproportionate and indiscriminate nuclear war, or the decision on whether to use nuclear weapons is being deferred to the worst possible moment for rational decision-making, namely, the depth of an international crisis, in which case the deterrent posture stands condemned as irresponsibly irrational. It might be imprudent to abandon one's nuclear weapons unilaterally, but nuclear deterrence cannot be accepted as a durable centre-piece of security policy. If it can be accepted at all then the tolerance is only in the interim, while deterrence is used to make possible the abolition of nuclear weapons.

A number of ingenious alternative assessments more favourable to deterrence were proposed during the Cold War debate about the bomb, and will probably return to prominence if and when the great powers' continued reliance on nuclear weapons returns to the centre of political controversy. But more pressing in the aftermath of the Cold War were issues concerning nuclear proliferation. Few were confident that nuclear weapons could safely be allowed to spread in an unregulated way. In so far as deterrence was thought to have contributed to preventing war among the great powers in the Cold War period, it was argued that mutual deterrence kept the peace, and especially each side's possession of an invulnerable second-strike capability, that is, the capacity to count on being able to inflict massive damage on an opponent even if the opponent attacked first. Unregulated proliferation of nuclear weapons has no inbuilt guarantee that pairs of enemies will acquire invulnerable second-strike capabilities at the same time. An unbalanced spread of nuclear weapons might bring dangerous incentives to strike one's opponent pre-emptively. Also, many believe that some states are more unstable and irresponsible than were the great powers during the Cold War, though this is an argument which fits ill with the contention that nuclear deterrence forces states to exercise restraint and moderation whatever their ideology and organizational defects.

If nuclear weapons cannot be allowed to spread freely, then it is a natural thought that primary responsibility for their control should lie with the Permanent Members of the Security Council who happen also to be the only self-confessed possessors of nuclear weapons. Hypocrisy apart, it might be argued that the Permanent Members alone have the power to offer security guarantees backed by deterrence to states on the brink of acquiring destabilizing nuclear weapons as well as the power to intervene to prevent de-stabilizing proliferation. Could it be legitimate to argue in this way? Many a realist would consider such an argument Utopian: states seek their own interests and the Permanent Members would intervene and offer security guarantees only in so far as these served their own interests. We could be sure, for example, that the US would treat Israel differently from Arab and other Muslim states.

Other realists are less certain. For them, the hazards of uncoordinated nuclear proliferation seem so great as to have the power to press all of the Permanent Members into perceiving a common problem requiring a common response. To emphasize hypocrisy, such realists will argue, is to misunderstand what is possible and constructive: though states will not act contrary to what they believe to be in their own interests, it is nevertheless possible for them sometimes to think in terms of enlightened common self-interest.

The theme of hypocrisy and enlightened self-interest also made itself felt in moral debate about response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The ethical debate about nuclear weapons and the introspection prompted by US intervention in Vietnam combined to make it seem that the relatively simple pattern of just war response to flagrant aggression would not be repeated in the sophisticated post-war world, so that the application of just war principles would be unavoidably problematic. It is therefore striking that the war to evict Iraq from Kuwait conformed closely to the requirements of the classic just war doctrine. Iraq's naked and unprovoked aggression against Kuwait was the clearest possible just cause for war. In the months before the decisive coalition attack on Iraq a great many kinds of remedy short of conventional war were tried without success. Sanctions were imposed. Start UN resolutions were issued. Inter-state diplomacy and visits by distinguished private citizens brought no lessening of Iraq's determination to keep Kuwait. The UN Secretary-General visited Baghdad only to be humiliated there. The traditional principle that war must be the last resort was clearly meaningful and clearly satisfied. The requirement for legitimate authority also proved to have a special significance. The US and its closest allies, notably the UK, sought the widest possible agreement to the terms on which Iraq was to be evicted from Kuwait. Realists will say that they had their own power-political reasons for doing so (oil, Israel, US prestige) but it remains notable that the war was halted when its UN-endorsed objectives had been achieved: coalition forces did not drive to Baghdad, and Saddam Hussein was suffered to remain in office, a torment to his people and an irritant to the great powers. Considerable efforts were made to avoid direct attacks on noncombatants. Some said that sanctions had not been given sufficient time, but this is an ambiguous claim: sanctions as a warning had ample time to work; sanctions as a blockade or siege were not given time to work, but it is unclear whether this is contrary to just war principles, for a blockade to impose the UN's will upon Saddam Hussein was likely to have required catastrophic suffering among the Iraqi population before the ruling elite began to experience the kinds of suffering which might conceivably have made them submit.

Most of those who question whether the Gulf War was justified assume that the traditional principles were more or less satisfied but doubt whether the US and its allies were in any serious sense committed to justice. The objection needs to be formulated with more care than is often shown. It will not do to call into doubt the purity of the coalition's motives, for many moral principles are addressed to the will rather than the heart and can be satisfied by being obeyed, whether the agent's motives for obeying are pure or mixed. Perhaps the strongest form of the objection is to argue that the coalition's aims merely happened on this occasion to coincide with the demands of justice. If on other occasions, when the just war principles seemed less expedient, they were not obeyed but dismissed as an irrelevance by the very people invoking them on this occasion, then it would be to the point to argue that these principles were not really guiding the will of the coalition.

This issue is in another guise the question of whether the UN oligarchy can legitimately intervene to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation by a judicious mix of security guarantees and coercion. In both cases, the classic just war doctrine's concern with what is justified on a particular occasion, such as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, is felt to be insufficient because we want to know what national policies or international institutions will ensure regular compliance with justice, if not justice for its own sake. In the classic tradition there is little guidance on such issues. The ruler is enjoined to consult a council of the wise and we have already noted the tradition's basic assumption that reason can be and should play the leading part in determining policy. On the other hand, the medieval just war writers have little to offer on the role of public opinion in decisions of war and peace. They assume that ordinary people are uninformed about such matters and entitled to entrust the decisions entirely to their rulers. If conscience forbids an action then conscience, even erring conscience, must be obeyed, but the medieval writers allow very little scope for conscience to be disturbed by matters of war and peace.

Whether we are nowadays in any better position to improve the rationality of our rulers' decision-making is debatable, but the inter-actions between ruling elites, other opinion-formers and public opinion are so influential that their impact on the classic just war doctrine may be one of the most important areas in which the doctrine needs to be elaborated. Much detailed work remains to be done, but a worthwhile outline of some of the principal issues is perhaps already discernible. According to the classic just war doctrine, a war can be just only if it is backed by legitimate authority. This principle is directed against arbitrary warfare. It is often said that the principle is satisfied if war is authorized by a sovereign state, but opinions about the war to evict Iraq from Kuwait suggest that state authorization is not enough. What more might be demanded in the spirit of the classic just war doctrine? What could make the authorization of war less arbitrary, more rational?

One very interesting possibility can be illustrated by the office of UN Secretary-General. Because the Secretary-General's principal loyalty can be to the UN system as a whole rather than to any one or group of the UN members, it is possible to imagine the Secretary-General being empowered to pronounce with special authority on which wars are legitimate. For example, he or she might be equipped and constitutionally authorized to draw attention to problem cases, first by resort to the Permanent Members and then, if appropriate action is not forthcoming, by resort to the General Assembly. A realist will point out that the Secretary-General's office has no power of its own apart from the will of the UN's members, but this does not in itself settle whether the office might be given an autonomy which might be likened to that of an investigating magistrate, to draw attention to victims who are being neglected and to wars which lack legitimacy. War is so much a struggle for hearts and minds that a reform of this kind within the formal structure of international relations could go some way to making the conduct of war less arbitrary, and the observance of just war principles less opportunist.

The war against Iraq did not show the UN's international institutions as having this degree of authority. The US, UK, and their allies were eager to develop the widest possible coalition of states and to secure formal UN authorization if possible. Nevertheless, they expressly reserved the right to act in collective self-defence (Article 51 of the UN Charter) and their being able to fall back on the right to act as they judged to be necessary undoubtedly helped to concentrate minds within the UN. It is hard to imagine the great powers relinquishing a final right of autonomous action, but it may be conceivable that the pressure for this right to be exercised only for the common good might be increased by strengthening the Secretary-General (whose humiliation in Baghdad was perhaps the clearest sign that all means short of war had been tried without success).

In addition to changes of the UN structure, the development of international public opinion could conceivably improve the rationality of decisions about peace and war, though arguments about this are far from conclusive. In a democracy, it is open to individuals to develop a concern about foreign affairs and to take a well-informed interest in the justice of their own and other governments' policies. Furthermore, many agree with J.S.Mill's argument that if all opinions can be freely debated then the truth will emerge. These considerations suggest that democracies can play an especially constructive part in making war conform to justice. On the other hand, many are pessimistic about modern media, which seem to them to propagate exploitative images rather than to provoke rational debate. Furthermore, the nineteenth-century liberals' belief that democracy would end war because the people who suffer by war would be reluctant to engage in it has proved a two-edged sword: though popular reluctance to suffer inhibits reckless warfare, it also promotes appeasement and the irresponsible neglect of victims of aggression, confining a democracy to self-righteous, unrestrained wars of self-defence against aggressors who should have been confronted earlier on behalf of the weak.

Although democracy is no panacea, it does seem fair to say that concerned citizens of democratic countries can play an informal part in making decision-making about war less arbitrary. Through a host of organizations such as Amnesty International and the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, as well as through the quiet diplomacy mentioned above in our discussion of pacifism, there is scope for informal work to press the exercise of State power in the direction of justice. The widespread feeling of helplessness to influence affairs is thus in part a failure to realize what is actually being done, in part an unreasonable perfectionism.

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